The women of the Shoreditch Sisters WI

On Tuesday evening, I had the great pleasure of running a wee workshop on self defence to complement the Shoreditch Sisters WI meeting on street harassment. In a former life, I was a feminist historian with a particular interest in female associationalism and the creation of class identity, however, apart from the London BJJ Women’s Open Mat, I haven’t participated in a formally single-sex organisation since my Girl Scout days. I was stunned and inspired by the youthful, vibrant, ‘real-life’ feminism that is alive and kicking in East London and I look forward to getting more involved with this great group of women.


ASH Campaign

Vicky Simister, ASH Campaign founder

The meeting began with a talk by Vicky Simister, founder of the UK Anti Street Harassment Campaign. Vicky’s talk was impressive. She shared a harrowing and moving story of being followed and then assaulted in the Tube, an experience which forever transformed her relationship with feminism and convinced her to work for change, and for her, a long game of social change to make street harassment socially unacceptable is the change she seeks through the ASH Campaign. An ASH initiative I found particularly exciting was the ‘I take no for an answer’ campaign. The idea is to turn the macho notion of not taking no for answer on its head, by having men pose with posters with the slogan. You see, feminism doesn’t exist in a vacuum nor does it denigrate the importance of relationships with men and the idea of ‘I take no for an answer’ is to provide role models for men and boys that women going about their business on the streets should be left to do so free of the background noise of consistent low level threatening behaviour. The aims of ASH are ambitious and admirable and I am particularly attracted to the notion of getting ‘clarity’. For example, if street harassment were socially unacceptable, then, when it was encountered, the victim would have more reason to believe there was a imminent threat to her person. (For those unconvinced by the prevalence of street harassment, check out the anecdotes at London HollaBack)


Shoreditch Sisters WI June meeting

Vicky’s cogent discussion of the aims of ASH, was followed by a debate among the women in attendance. This debate brought up a range of issues such as intersections of ethnicity and culture with gender and street harassment; varying strategies for dealing with day-to-day harassment; and personal stories of street harassment and assault. This discussion helped Vicky to clarify the position of ASH, which takes a top-down approach to street harassment. The underlying notion is that the onus is not the victims of harassment to deal with it – to treat the symptoms rather than the cause – but rather it is important to cultivate a social shift in attitudes that renders street harassment socially unacceptable, this to be achieved by initiatives such as ‘I take no for an answer’ and educational work in schools.


Self Defence Workshop

Talking through a defence to an attack from the back

The second half of the meeting was spent as an introductory self defence workshop. Drawing on Gracie Jiu Jitsu-style self defence techniques, we looked at two defences versus a two-handed grab to the throat; several women had mentioned this form of attack when discussing experiences of street harassment that had escalated to assault. We also looked at one defence versus a grab from behind. Something that was extra cool about this experience for me, from a BJJ point of view, is that everyone in the room could execute the techniques regardless of athleticism and attire. The group was all in street clothes, from dresses and heels to trousers and flats, but this did not hinder implementation of the Gracie self defence techniques. I am not suggesting that full competency was achieved, but in the context of a ‘quick and dirty’ intro to self defence, it was clear to me that these techniques are for anybody, not just the strong and aggressive. This reinforces my belief in the techniques and the mindset around training BJJ for self defence. The idea is that these very practical techniques have a self defence benefit in themselves while also allowing for an ‘entry point’ of learning martial arts/BJJ for people outside of the mainstream of folk likely to walk into a gym and start rolling around with giant sweaty dudes. Note: any Shoreditch Sisters keen to know more – and I saw a few of you really diggin it! – join me at my Coach’s Sunday evening class at Ilford Fitness First or contact me to discuss options to learn more!


Trying out a defence versus a grab to the throat

I sought to couch the workshop in some context around training for self defence, emphasising that an art like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can certainly give a person options for dealing with an attacker, but skills are developed over time and with consistent practice. Readers will know that I am big advocate of getting women involved in BJJ – hence the London BJJ Women’s Open Mat, collabs with gi companies to make more and better products for us, mag articles looking at women in the art, this blog and so on – and I think BJJ has a huge range of benefits for anyone, including women, above and beyond self defence – fitness, well being, friendship, active stress relief and so forth. For me, self defence wasn’t a huge motivation for starting martial arts but it was a consideration and I do really like training BJJ for self defence as I believe it enhances my game. I have always felt that the chances of a physical confrontation are pretty low (most problems I’ve dealt with in life have been sexually aggressive individuals who can be put off by being mouthy rather than punch ups, and I suppose this reflects the gendered nature of violence to an extent), but equally I have enjoyed the sense that I have some skills that could help if things got hairy. Having been jumped recently my attitude remains pretty much the same, but as my experience of street robbery lacked aggression it is difficult to say how much differently my perspective might’ve changed if my thief had been a very violent individual. At any rate, these are judgements that everyone needs to make for herself/himself based on their own morality and the unique circumstances of any given situation. I personally don’t think it is possible to fully prepare for a physical confrontation and everyone freezes for some amount of time if they are unlucky enough to have that experience (and if one were attacked 10 times one would have 10 different responses and there’s just no telling). Bearing that in mind, I do think it is possible to develop skills and confidence that will allow you to evaluate a situation as rationally and calmly as possible, always a plus when decision-making. Similarly, there is no ‘silver bullet’ move, and developing skills and muscle memory is a long process of consistent practice over time. Equally, of course self defence isn’t *just* about learning a set of moves, but the ‘moves’ you do learn may come in handy.



Big thanks to the Shoreditch Sisters WI for inviting me along and for the photographs used in this post. The Shoreditch Sisters meet on the last Tuesday of the month and anyone interested can get more information emailing